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Hotelier Patsy O'Kane: 'I almost died this year, but I'm not ready to check out right now'

By Una Brankin

Hotelier Patsy O'Kane collapsed with a life-threatening illness just weeks after she was awarded an MBE, but her recovery was given the perfect boost when she won the Hotel of the Year accolade.

The collapse was swift and sudden, a perilous twist of fate in a life and career in the ascendant. It came with no real warning for Patsy O'Kane. Apart from a few queasy turns, the genial 66-year-old was working full-time, as usual, at her highly successful Beech Hill Country House Hotel, a beautiful Georgian mansion on the outskirts of Londonderry.

She had received an MBE from Princess Anne at Buckingham Palace at the beginning of May, in recognition of her service to the tourism and hospitality industry, and was pleasantly surprised by the "well-briefed" royal's genuine interest in her establishment and the Second World War museum within its 32-acre grounds. Patsy wore black, embellished with diamante, and a feather fascinator. A little pale, she had only a hint of make-up on her fair skin, but seemed hale and hearty at the celebrations.

But by the end of the month, the mother of two was fighting for her life.

"I was at work; I hadn't been feeling great that day and I just got sicker and sicker," she recalls. "I was standing there one minute and the next thing I collapsed, and was rushed to Altnagelvin Hospital. I thought initially it was my hip giving way, but it was more serious than that. I almost died."

A 22cm lump - roughly the size of a melon - had formed on Patsy's liver, weighing down dangerously on the vital organ. On May 30, it burst.

"The staff at Altnagelvin saved my life," she says, without drama. "No-one would ever complain if they knew how hard they work. It was touch-and-go with me for a while but they kept going for me. I had a lot of prayers and good wishes too, so I eventually pulled through. I was off my feet for months, though. I'm just back doing a couple of hours each day now. I missed work."

The growth turned out to be non-malignant but - given its size and location - equally as life-threatening. It took Patsy the whole summer and autumn to recuperate, and it demanded all of her strength to drag herself to the Irish Hotel and Restaurant Awards in October.

"We got the call about attending and I said I didn't really feel up to it," Patsy admits. "We've been 'nearly there' in terms of some big awards and I didn't fancy going through that again. Then we got a second call about sending someone senior in my place, and I thought, 'something's up!'"

Then, after Patsy making a supreme effort to attend the event in Dublin, award after award was announced with no mention of Beech Hill in any category, leaving her convinced she was going to leave empty-handed.

"When they announced we'd won Hotel of the Year 2015, I was really in shock; I was thrilled. These are Georgina Campbell's awards and she produces the leading independent hospitality guide for the country. This award is a fantastic boost for the hotel and the wonderful team we have here, and also for the city and for the north-west."

She is consistently cheery and speaks warmly, in mild south Derry inflections much softer than the typical half-Scottish lilt of her hometown, Magherafelt. It's not hard to imagine her guests - which include a string of VIPs and celebrities - being charmed by her, and made to feel instantly at home.

As industry expert Georgina Campbell said in her presentation of the Hotel of the Year award: "Patsy is a perfect example of the hands-on proprietor, totally committed to developing the best aspects of this interesting hotel and making the guest experience memorable. Every year brings a new round of plans and improvements and, not only is Patsy a warmly caring hostess, but this genuine hospitality is shared by her staff too, so each guest always feels personally welcome."

The work ethic and vision behind the success of Beech Hill goes back to Patsy's upbringing in the Sixties and Seventies, when as a child she would help out regularly at The Arches, her father Leo Donnelly's chippy and restaurant on Magherafelt's Market Street. The family had a hard-working, all-hands-on-deck approach to the business, and while Patsy's country classmates from St Mary's Grammar would muck in on family farms in their spare time, Patsy would spend weekends and school holidays serving up fish and chips.

"Dad was a businessman who liked a challenge and wanted to do his best for the family," Patsy recalls fondly. "He had everyone on board - my mother, my brother Seamus, and my sister Dolores and me - and we all had our chores. The fish and chip shop was very popular; at the time the pubs closed at 10.30pm, and we'd also get the film-goers coming in after being at the cinema.

"Then we became the first licensed restaurant around; there were very few in the Sixties. It was a great idea - the only other place to eat out was in a hotel, and not everyone could afford that. We used good local produce, started small and grew from there. Oh, and we had the first carvery in south Derry, in 1971. It flew - everyone loved it."

Patsy was named after her late mother Patricia. Her 93-year-old father Leo was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease three years ago, a crushing blow to Patsy and her siblings. The industrious former businessman had taken a gamble, at his daughter's suggestion, on selling The Arches in 1989 to invest in the Beech Hill Manor on the Ardmore Road, just outside Derry.

"I saw an ad for the sale and I loved the place from the start," she explains. "It needed a lot of work done but I could see it working immediately. At the start dad thought I was talking through my hat. He didn't like it; didn't think it was logical to leave a successful business and felt there wasn't the market for it. But I went and spoke to the tourism development officer Martin Pepper and in the end I was able to persuade dad, and Seamus (48) and Dolores (60), who runs Trust House 40 at the airport, that it was a good idea.

"Dad sold his business reluctantly but there was no room for growth at the Arches, and no car parking, whereas Beech Hill had such potential, and such history."

The handsome three-storey house was built in 1729 by a Captain Thomas Skipton, who named the dwelling for the numerous surrounding trees. When the estate was passed on, three generations later, to George Skipton, he planted more trees and much improved the layout and appearance of the grounds. An impressive porch was added to the front of the house and a large library room built above it.

A change in ownership came in 1872 when Beech Hill was bought by the wealthy Nicholsons, of nearby Newbuildings village, who made a number of internal changes to the house but kept it as a family home. At the time of the sale in 1989, ownership of the house had passed down to Michael Nicholson, then a senior barrister who had just been appointed a High Court judge, a position which required a move to Belfast. The price tag 25 years ago was £275,000.

Patsy says: "There was a recession on and there weren't many interested in buying it. Developers were put off because it's a listed building, and that brings a lot of restrictions, but it was right up my street. I always loved old Downton-style houses and antiques, and I always enjoyed cooking in that tradition of big country houses, of using fresh local produce: healthy and good value.

"The house needed a lot of work but Dad and his brothers were also in construction, and very talented, so the refurbishment became another family affair."

With Patsy and her brother Seamus at the helm, and nephew Connor in charge of sales and marketing, the premises remains a hands-on family-run venture. After an extensive two-year refurbishment, crowds of local people gathered to take a look when the Beech Hill Country House Hotel finally opened for business in April 1991.

"We didn't have a big bash - it was very humble," Patsy recalls. "Dad thought it would be daft to splash out on a big event. We invited some senior people from companies like DuPont and Fruit of the Loom to be our first guests, and took it from there.

"It was unknown territory - we were introducing a new concept to the area. The Arches was all-things-to-all-people but in hospitality you can't mix the market. We offer fine dining - not Michelin star, but very good quality food; no toasties at lunchtime."

As the hotel was slightly off the beaten track, it offered rooms initially at £35 per head per night, rising to its current rate of £75. Crucially, its pet-friendly policy from the beginning allowed guests to bring their four-legged friends, a huge draw in particular for the over-60s.

The food at the hotel's renowned Ardmore restaurant quickly became another attraction. Patsy studied cooking under the tutelage of the legendary Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe in Cork, and made the hotel's walled garden a treasure trove of fresh organic herbs and vegetables. After two years at three-star status, Beech Hill Country House was elevated to the high end of four-star.

"It was very important to be pet-friendly," Patsy confirms. "We have lovely gardens and walks, and a huge retired market from Sunday to Thursday. We've seen some exceptional pedigree dogs from all over the world down through the years - I've never seen animals treated so well before! They have health checks, special diets, dog beds and so on.

"So that was a hit for us from the start. We did open in recession and have been through another, but we were lucky to have had no borrowings and didn't have to lay-off anyone - we employ a lot of students in high season. Our major costs are labour and food, and I monitor costs continually, so there's no waste! I think that's bred into us."

Patsy lives in Limavady, five minutes from work, with her husband Joe (70), a retired headmaster. The couple have two daughters: Aine (37), a vet, and Aisling (39), a hedge-fund manager and mother to one-year-old Cathain, Patsy's only grandchild so far.

The child's great-grandfather, Patsy's father Leo, wasn't able to join the MBE and Hotel of the Year award celebrations this year, but he has had the pleasure of seeing his daughter and son succeed in making Beech Hill one of the jewels in the crown of our valuable tourism industry. As a young girl, however, Patsy never dreamt of a future in which she would play host to world leaders and A-list Hollywood stars.

She studied Occupational Therapy in Dublin and at the City Hospital in Belfast before moving back home to work in Altnagelvin Hospital.

"There seemed to be a shortage of professionals to help when people become disabled through stroke or arthritis, or are going through rehabilitation, and suddenly find it very difficult to make the bed, or get dressed, or cook a meal," she says. "I didn't want to be a nurse but I wanted in some way to help people carry out those tasks; it was so interesting to me.

"I like a challenge and to figure things out, and I loved working at Altnagelvin after I got married, but I still helped out at the Arches at weekends. It was expected, and I was happy to."

The Beech Hill Country House Hotel opened 25 years ago in the midst of historic political reform. President Bill Clinton has stayed there twice, at the recommendation of John Hume, a close advisor of Patsy and Seamus.

"John Hume was instrumental to our success," Patsy asserts. "He was a great mentor and coach to me early on. He always brought international visitors here during all the talks and advised me how to look after them - what to do and what not to do. I like to think I helped the peace process in some small way by providing a warm room and good food and plenty of coffee! Hospitality is important in tense times like that.

"John's a real font of wisdom," she adds. "I think the best advice he gave me was 'Never promise what you can't deliver and always exceed expectations'. The quality is there; all we have to do is bring a personal touch and the correct level of attentiveness."

Patsy's advocacy for good country-style cooking was given a boost last year when the Beech Hill partnered with Lady Dunleath from Ballywalter Estate to promote food heritage. The walled garden is the main focus of this project, along with a 150-year-old cookbook the hotel inherited.

The book references the garden and the dishes that could be created throughout the year from its produce, and the kitchen team is developing historical recipes from it.

Another ambition of Patsy's is to buy Beech Hill's gate lodge if it ever comes up for sale, and to convert it into five-star accommodation for short breaks. She oversaw a £500,000 restoration project at the big house in 2011, including new sash windows, extensive re-roofing and external and interior redecoration. That followed a major facelift in 2007, in which historians and specialist artists were hired to give back the hotel's original Georgian appearance. Former owner, Judge Michael Nicholson, was delighted with the results.

Coming from the former lord of the manor, what better recommendation for a joint can there be ...

Patsy on Beech Hill's VIP guests

The Clintons: "No-one can boost morale like Bill Clinton does. He was relaxed here. He really has great charisma. And Hillary would be a wonderful president - that would make me so happy."

Senator Ted Kennedy: "He stayed with us for eight days before the second ceasefire. He made a serious impact on how I look at life and the community, and he gave me a beautiful picture of JFK, Robert and himself. I'm so lucky to have it."

Actor Will Ferrell: "He was here two days before I realised who he was; he kept such a low profile. He was with his seven-foot tall dad and his brother, and went walking in grounds. I saw the curls through the window one day and recognised him. He said when he came in, 'I wondered how long it was gonna take you!'"

Singer/actor Jason Donovan: "I didn't know who he was and I don't like to intrude, and tend to stand back. He was very busy but he did kindly take the time to pose for a photo."

Jude Law and Seamus Heaney: "I'm not familiar with these younger ones like Jude - I'm an old woman! Seamus Heaney meant more to me. He really liked the peace and quiet."

Billy Connolly: "He was very withdrawn, liked his own company. He used the other exits and liked to connect with nature."

The Edge and Larry Mullen (U2): "It shows how stupid I am - U2 helped establish the Nerve Centre in Derry, and they were in the restaurant one Saturday with their long hair and tight trousers and winkle pickers. I was thinking 'I have to watch my market and keep an eye on them'. Then a waitress pulled me aside and said 'Do you not realise who they are?' It was a lesson to keep an open mind about people."

Michael Palin: "Lovely, naturally charming - like Clinton. Very interested in our history and heritage."

Pixie Lott: "She came with her mammy during Derry's City of Culture. She's such a darling girl. Not a proper madam."

Beech Hill's special relationship with the US Marines

Beech Hill is home to a mini museum of the US Marine Friendship Association, containing Second World War artefacts and memorabilia from the US Marines' former headquarters on the estate. Hundreds of Americans visit the museum and hotel annually.

In February 1942, the United States Navy established its first base on this side of the Atlantic, on the banks of the River Foyle in Londonderry.

Ships there were to play a crucial role in North Atlantic operations. The sailors were soon joined by the United States Marines, who were ordered in to provide security for America's new military in Northern Ireland. (One fear was that the naval base could be attacked by German commandoes landed by submarine, or by subversives from the neutral Republic of Ireland.)

Around 750 Marines found themselves guarding the Navy base and various other vitally important installations in the area. They became known as 'The Irish Marines' and they were billeted in the grounds of the Beech Hill estate; troops living in Quonset huts, officers in the house itself. While they were here, the Marines formed lasting friendships with local people. Many married girls from Londonderry.

Every year groups of Marines from America and Europe visit Beech Hill. Serving Marines visiting today uphold a tradition that started around 70 years ago when many of their wartime predecessors carved their names on a tree deep down in the hotel's woods.

For more on the historic Beech Hill Country House Hotel, see beech-hill.com

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